Tuesday, 9 August 2011

On the Current Riots in London and Other British Cities

After the third night of rioting in London, other British cities, such as Birmingham, Nottingham, Liverpool, and Bristol, have also seen serious disturbances and vandalism. Media reporting has been very clear that the rioters are young people, but unfortunately there has been little attempt to understand the reasons behind the unrest.

Akin to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who has talked about ‘sheer criminality’, the media has tended to report the unrest in terms of a kind of irrational, meaningless, pointless deviance. As a Sociologist, I have no doubt that the riots appear irrational and meaningless, but I also know that this is not really the case and that there are social reasons for these kind of disturbances. In some ways it is easy to talk about ‘criminality’. All you have to do is lock people up. You don’t have to try to understand or deal with deep rooted social and political issues. Having said this, there is no doubt. The riots are not explicitly political. Instead, they are the acts of people who feel excluded and believe that they have no stake in the communities and society they are seeking to destroy.

But if the riots are clearly an expression of rage, and reflect what happens to people when society falls to listen to them or factor them into its plans, they are also clearly entrepreneurial in respect of the fact that the rioters are clearly looters, stealing clothes, electrical equipment, and other consumer durables. Again, one does not need a PhD in Sociology to understand the reasons behind looting. The American Sociologist Robert Merton explained in the 1930s that if a society sets itself up on the basis of particular goals and objectives and then deprives a large section of the population from access to those goals and objectives, then that excluded population will find alternative means to achieve those goals and objectives. In Merton’s American case, it is easy to see how this theory plays out. The goals and objectives are money, consumption, success, and the American dream and the excluded population are the poor people, and especially the racially excluded Blacks and Hispanics, who turn to crime in order to achieve the goals that the middle classes take for granted.

Is the same theory not playing out in Britain today? What has happened over the course of the last 15 years is that we have raised a generation of people on the basis of an ideology that said that the capitalistic goods of society should be accessible to everybody. Following the last Conservative government, the New Labour model of social mobility, premised on the value of education, was meant to allow everybody to have a piece of the pie. Unfortunately, even then, youth ran out of control in a society absolutely geared around consumption and enjoyment, because nobody wants to wait and our society is already massively unequal. However, Blair et al held back the tide of criminality because they could offer people the potential of legitimate means to achieve the socially determined goals of consumption and success. Unsurprisingly for a group of millionaires who have never had to think about means to ends because they have always been there, the Conservatives behaved in an entirely socially irresponsible manner and set about destroying the basic social framework in Britain which could allow for the promise of legitimate means to the goals of inclusion in consumer capitalism.

Cuts to everything, including welfare and education, have created an atmosphere where the poor and alienated feel that the basic means to the ends of success are no longer available. Moreover, at the same time that austerity is expected of the poor, who are simply meant to swallow their lack of opportunity, it is, of course, business as usual for the rich who continue to consume and the mass media which persists in selling everybody a consumer fantasy. In other words, at the same time as the Conservative government has pulled up the ladder of social mobility, the media has continued to advertise the spectacle of the riches and excesses of the consumer society. As a consequence, our society has effectively rubbed the noses of the poor and young in their lack of opportunity. Of course, New Labour never did anything to tame the excesses of the rich, but at least they had the good sense to leave a crack in the door open for the poor and centrally the young who still believe they can make it.

It is precisely this crack in the door that the Conservatives have slammed shut. If our current economic problems last for another five to ten years, the average 16 year old could be somewhere between 21 and 26 by the time we emerge from this situation. It is not enough to sacrifice these people and treat them as collateral damage in order to save the bacon of the rich who would rather not pay more tax. It is not enough to say that cuts are necessary and lump the burden on the poor and the young, leaving the rich free to enjoy what they have apparently earned. If cuts are necessary, the burden should fall on the richest members of our society, who should carry the weight of the mistakes of the past, because they are the people who benefited most in the good times. Quite apart from the ethical evil of throwing a generation on the scrap heap before they have even had the chance to start their adult lives, it is entirely socially irresponsible to do so, because riots will inevitably by the result. As a Sociologist, I am truly amazed that the Conservative government did not see these riots on the horizon. The fact that they clearly did not see this coming illustrates a number of important points for me, which should lead us to democratically remove them from office as quickly as possible. First, they have absolutely no sense of society or the majority people who live within it. They have no idea about the way people feel or how they react when they feel that they have no future. They are out of touch.

Second, they have no idea about recent history. Did these people not live through the inner city riots in the 1980s, which were the result of Thatcher’s war on the working classes? There is no specific working class unrest today, and what we are witnessing is not class war, so perhaps we can excuse people with no sense of social history this over-sight. But what about the French riots in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Did the Conservative government not see how young, disenfranchised, people responded to deep social exclusion in Paris and other French cities? Did they not imagine that the same events might occur in Britain? Third, the Conservatives are clearly arrogant and socially irresponsible in the extreme because they did not consider the possibility that their policies could destabilize our society in this way. They thought they could ride roughshod over people and that everybody would simply consent to their violent policies. Unlike New Labour who understood the political import of maintaining the idea of social mobility, the Conservatives appear to have such a low opinion of the people and their aspirations that they do not feel the need to provide them with the basic possibility of opportunity.

Regardless of the entirely predictable line of Theresa May – we have to be tough on crime – we have to ask ourselves whether we want to live in a society where so many people feel excluded and badly treated? What kind of society do we have where people, and especially young people, feel this way? What kind of democracy do we have where people riot because they feel that they have no voice and no future?

Ironically, we have the same kind of democracy that ignores massive student protests and waves of strikes. We have the same kind of democracy that we had in the 1980s when the Thatcher government felt it was acceptable to destroy entire communities in the name of economic growth and the same kind of democracy the French have today which leaves young ethnic people to rot on sprawling suburban estates. But I do not think we should accept a return to the social divisions of the 1980s. It is not enough for a government to mindlessly repeat the mistakes of the past in the name of protecting the privileges of the rich. Nobody wants to live with riots and social chaos. Nobody should have their homes and businesses burned to the ground. This is not the kind of society anybody wants and it is not enough for government to say that every rioter is a mindless criminal. That is no explanation and that is no way to handle massive unrest. A true democracy listens. As we know from the Arab Spring, democracy is better than authoritarianism because it involves all of the people. It does not ignore them and lock them up.

On the basis that nobody should want to live in a society where so many people are excluded to the extent that they feel that rioting is the way forward, I think it is a mistake to simply focus on the symptom – the rioters – and talk about their ‘sheer criminality’ because this will not change anything. Instead, I think that we need to think about the deep social and political causes of what we have witnessed over the course of the last three nights in our major cities and decide that we need a society that is inclusive and cares about the future of the majority of the population, rather than one which is dominated by a self-interested elite who have no sense of the need to provide the rest of the population with the means of social mobility.

Mark Featherstone

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Every word of this rings true to me. What shocks me more about the last 3 days is the attitudes of disdain for the socially excluded - disdain which spreads through print and social media almost as fast as the riots and lootings have. Yet we're not really addressing the true reasons behind these people's behaviour: the extent of the exclusion which has lead to such behaviour. Thanks for a great blog.